Certain occasions test a columnist. How to do justice to an event? What do you say at the turn of a millennium? What do you say to propose a toast at Jesus’ two thousandth birthday party?
The temptation of course is to let an event of this magnitude – and Jesus 2000th birthday, the event by which we date time on this planet, surely is an event of such magnitude – seduce you into a bit of grandiosity, where you feel called upon (and competent to!) to propose the religious agenda for the next hundred years (“The Spiritual and Ecclesial Agenda for the Next Millennium”). Too grandiose altogether, my Gaelic friends would say. Yet it’s even less forgivable to not address the event at all. Imagine ignoring the turn of a millennium and acting as if all was simply business as usual? Let the world have its hype and its parties, that’s nothing, let’s you and I talk about proposed new changes in the liturgy!
To my mind, the proper balance is struck by Pope John Paul II in his pastoral letter on the Millennium, Incarnationis Mysterium, where he shows what can lie between grandiosity, secular hype, and apocalyptic nonsense on one side and insensitivity, pseudo-sophistication, and post-Christian bias on the other. What the pope proposes in this letter is that, while there is no magic in numbers and there is theology of numbers, there are occasions that are unique in their symbolism and afford us unique opportunities for grace. The turn of a millennium is such an occasion, a Kairos. What Incarnationis Mysterium invites us to do is to turn the year 2000 into a Jubilee year. What is a Jubilee year? According to a biblical custom, based on Leviticus 25, there is to be, every fifty years or so, a year of Jubilee, a year within which slaves are given back their freedom and all the land reverts to it previous owners. The pope is inviting us to make the year 2000 that kind of year. But how to do this practically? How do we set slaves free and return land to its proper ownership?
The perfect can be the enemy of the good. If we try to do too much we may end up doing nothing. There is no perfect, literal, way of living this out; still there are many things we can do, both communally and individually, to help set slaves free and return land to is proper ownership. What are these?
Literalism can also be an enemy of the good. Jubilee is ultimately about forgiving debts, trying to set free those who are under restraint, ending dominance, and practising restorative justice. The means for this are always the same. To do this, each of us must try to reconcile with our enemies, live a simpler life, acknowledge the holy, respect the integrity of creation, admit our past mistakes and how these have hurt others, and acknowledge in gratitude the life and grace that have been given us.
In line with this, Incarnationis Mysterium then suggests that, next year, as faith communities, we might consider doing one, or several, of these things:
- Have a dinner to which we invite the poor and homeless in our area
- Have a special reconciliation service with another denomination, religion, or with some ideological group with whom we have had a less than cordial history.
- Give away some of our material goods directly to the poor in our area.
- Commit ourselves to a simpler lifestyle, in a tangible way.
- Organize a pilgrimage or go on a pilgrimage to a holy place.
- Do at least one concrete ecological project that manifests our concern for the integrity of creation.
- Have a special, public, healing service to confess some aspect of our “dark past” as a community; analogous to the Pope’s acknowledgement of the church’s historical arrogance in treating Galileo.
- Hold a special remembrance service for particular “martyrs” within our own recent faith history.
Beyond the communal, there is of course the private. We need, each of us, to do some individual things too in each of these areas. Again, this will be, most times, not a question of literally setting slaves free and restoring land to its rightful owner, but of a deeper, inner, circumcision-of-the-heart. We can, for instance, celebrate Jubilee by:
- Forgiving a long-standing grudge.
- Celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation more frequently and more honestly.
- Writing off a debt that someone owes us.
- Giving away some of our own money directly to the poor.
- Adopting a poor person into our life.
- Taking a homeless person out to dinner.
- Simplifying our lifestyle.
- Going on a pilgrimage or making within our own home a place for pilgrimage and worship.
- Attending a prayer service within another church.
- Recognizing, in gratitude, those who have suffered to give us both faith and maturity.
The turn of the millennium is a privileged opportunity for grace. Is this statement a divine counsel or a worn cliche? That depends … entirely upon each of us!